Egyptology – Travels In The Desert Land

14th March, 2018, Morning


Travelling to Egypt


When our plane flew over the Arabian Desert I saw that the sands over North Yemen was silver. As we flew beyond the Persian Gulf the sands of Arabia appeared Sandy brownish turning to gold wherever it caught the sun and glistened in it. Finally, beyond the Red Sea after the layover at Kuwait when we swooped to touch ground in Cairo I saw the Sahara Desert as dusty, brown and dull. Madhusree, Madhuleena and I, all in our fifties are travelling to Egypt on a weeklong vacation to see the pyramids and the most ancient civilization of mankind. We are travelling with an all women group organized by a company called Byond travel. The group consists of yet another threesome of women in their sixties all friends like us from college days, and two professors of psychology, one retired and another on the anvil of retirement, a younger dancer who runs her own school and a much younger banker. Madhusree was the one to have started it all, speaking to the company and assured at least six tourists from her side. The company, on its own marketed for another four and that made the quota of ten tourists per group. An all women group is a wonder by itself, women seldom emerge into public spaces as their own selves, unattached to tags of family and social roles assigned through human cultures. But among themselves, as independent entities earning and spending on their own, women become something else, confident, decisive, adaptive, participative and cooperative. Women uninvolved with men are the true wonders of humanity, empowered they could have made the world a much better place to be in.


Worried for Georgie our pet dog and leaving her rather reluctantly under the care of our household help, wiping dry that occasional tear drops as we waved her goodbye, we negotiated suitcases packed over weeks into the taxi to reach the airport at night to catch the early morning flight to Kuwait and therefrom to Cairo. At the Delhi airport the two trios met one another and we soon spotted the two psychology professors, both of who we guessed because of their WhatsApp profile pictures. Now at Kuwait a rather young woman with a fractured toe came up to us and introduced herself as the ninth member while we spotted our tenth one as she circled us rather hesitantly, unable to deduce that we were her group.


The security at the airport was rather strict and confusing. I spotted two men and a male child wearing a kaachhaa with iron keys hanging from a string and I thought that they were Bengalis who mourning the loss of a loved one. But soon enough I saw other groups as well and finally when they stood in the line to Jeddah I realized that they were all part of the same Umrah Haj pilgrimage. The Arab Haj has the same dress code as the Bengali Hindu mourning, may be both are born out of the same sense of lament, endured over centuries of contact and cross culturation between the 6 CE and the 12 CE.


The travel agent who booked our tickets opted for the Hindu veg meal for all of us when none among the ten were vegetarians. The veg meal is risky to have on international flights because these meals have less takers and often get stale due to non-circulation. The staid ness of the food was amply made up for by the visuals of the desert below and switching in the downward camera of the plane we relished every moment of the flight.


At Cairo Byond’s agent, Wings greeted us. Mr Saleh, the manager at Cairo for Wings nicely chaperoned us as if we were on a school excursion and guided us through shortcuts to get us out of the airport without much waiting or exhaustion. At Cairo we were checked into Le Meridien Pyramids. The hotel was quite a distance away from the airport and we drove through the city in a very comfortable air-conditioned bus. Cairo holds 30 percent of Egypt’s population and has 9 million people all packed into high rise buildings. The buildings are box like with a near uniform facade of square windows almost always without glass, looking as if they are some natural formations cut out of a huge bare rock. The outer walls are coloured with various shades of the sand celebrating their existential identity in the vast desert, aspiring to mingle into it, never to assert any of their artistic individuality in defiance of their given Universe. On the eastern bank of the Nile, at the site of Heliopolis, the ancient capital of Northern Egypt where the early dynasties ruled stood the gargantuan pyramids, tombs for the dead to rule over the living.


Mr Saleh alerted us to glimpses of the pyramid on the western side of the street, now hidden behind a pile of high rises, modern life trying to obliterate an ancient legacy. Soon the tombs were in fuller sight and when we checked into our rooms in the hotel, standing almost in a handshaking distance were the great pyramids, starkly real what was only a picture in the history textbooks in Class 3, a book called The March of Times.


Mrs Roychoudhury was an Australian Amazon, a broadly built six feet tall blonde white skinned woman married to a Bengali and taught in the junior classes. On the day she taught us about the pyramids she described what it was like to be going inside a pyramid, you have to crawl and the walls are very rough inside she said. The tunnels are long and deep and you have to go into the chamber of the coffin, she said. How big are the pyramids Miss, we would ask and looking out of the classroom, as big as these we would say pointing out to some really tall buildings of the city. Mrs Roychoudhury would shake her head and say, not even bigger, much bigger than even what your imagination can be. And now out of the frame of yet another window I am validating my imagination as the huge threesome of pyramids built by Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure stand before me.


Egypt seemed to hold much of the same flavor as it did in the days of Hercule Poirot, with quaint Englishmen, the French adventurers, the Italian businessmen and a plethora of tourists from almost every conceivable nationality of the world. We ordered a plate of baked breads to suit the mood of the inter War Europe in Egypt and with the sachets of Darjeeling tea we carried, we spent time preparing for the days ahead of us by repacking small handbags with adequate supplies of warm clothes and hand sanitizers and sun blocks.


14th March 2018



Friends from Egypt in Kolkata had warned me that the evenings in Cairo in the spring could be very cold. The three of us, Madhuleena, Madhusree and me are carrying thickish fleeces and woolen caps. With these we brave the cool breeze as we see the sun setting to darken the pyramids and the Sphinx. We are now closer to the pyramids, behind a rampart from which the structures appear close enough to touch. We are a bit disappointed because from what we saw in the film, Mishawr Rohosyo the Pyramids were surrounded by a huge terrain of sand and now we see them only inside a concrete moat! Anyway, we are happy to see the sun setting on the giant tombs of the Fourth dynasty of Egypt some five thousand years ago. The Sirius shines on the head of the Khufu pyramid and it seems between the desert and the sky as if time never passed between us and the ancient Pharaohs for here they were so much alive in their death.


The light and sound show begins and the crowd that was milling into the open-air auditorium is stunned into silence by the amazing holograms showing the funerary processions of the Kings, their sarcophaguses and the processes of mummification. We are still in the process of knowing one another in the group but we are already opening up.


On our way back to the hotel for dinner, we are caught in a marriage procession. The groom is on a horse, the bride on a carriage atop a camel. She is dressed in traditional attire but strangely has no ornaments. The procession dances all the way and our guide, Mr Hassan Ahmed, henceforth only Hassan tells us that we are now passing through the plebeian part of Cairo, a locality of animal rearers and grooms on horseback are low class in Egypt. The best men come in cars. I think that our North Indian men will not like such an observation though the men of the east will love it.

We are wont to repeat our experience in the plane of having cast into the cubbyhole of Hindu vegetarianism. We are vehement to taste only Egyptian food. A small sub group of four had been to the restaurant next door for a small bite in the evening and really praised Egyptian burgers. We are now in a huge hall of over sixty item spread for a buffet dinner. We gorge on pita bread, cheese, fish and fruits and retire to bed after a few pleasantries among ourselves for a visit to the pyramids the following morning.


15th March 2018, Morning

The Pyramids


No one is really sure as to why the pyramids were ever built. I read in the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt by Ian Shaw that the ancient Egyptians, the people who lived in an area called the Naqadda in 8000 BCE were known to have buried their dead with covers of mats and reeds and with utensils and food stuff on the assumption that there must be a life after death. Recent studies, published as late as the February 2018 by Daniel Everette from the Bentley University of Global Studies says that the homo erectus were good sailors and had adequate language to undertake elaborate journeys across oceans. I remember that an ocean journey was represented as death in ancient sculptures of Kyrgyzstan; perhaps the familiarity of oceans and its metaphorization as death gave the ancient people in Egypt the concept of an afterlife. Whether it was the homo erectus, or the homo sapiens, the latter being a huge possibility because Africa is the birthplace of the modern human being, the human having migrated out of the continent to inhabit various parts of the world, it is entirely likely that the concept of an afterlife emerged from the fact of migration, whether over land or through the sea. Such a conception of after life as a continuity of the lived life perhaps is the reason behind the attempts at the preservation of dead bodies.

When we first saw the pyramids against the falling rays of the evening sun as we assembled on a porch with white linen covered steel chairs for a sound and light show at the Giza, the mighty monuments had towered over us from behind a rampart. But now as we alight from the bus, we see that they are located in a boundless expanse of the sands of the desert. Huge, humungous, endless pieces of human endeavours, brought forth by investments from Kings but made out of enormous talents of its engineers. The engineers, it seems were the stars and so unreal was their talent, so little repeated have they been elsewhere that many people after Erik Von Daniken almost believed that they were aliens from the outer space. It is also believed that if looked from the air the 118 pyramids across Giza and the Nile appears as though they are stars beside the Milky Way. Some Egyptologists believe that the Pharaohs desired to become the stars as their spirits flew out of the air tunnels constructed cleverly within the pyramids.

Egypt is a gift of the Nile because the Nile floods and leaves behind a rich layer of alluvial soil on which grows the food crops. But the waters may enter the graves and ruin the corpses and so those who could afford must have placed their bodies high up inside covered mounds which were shaped like high solid benches called as mastabas. The first pyramid built by a king of Djoser was a pile of mastabas, one on top of the other, designed by a maverick architect called Imohotep which emerged as what we know today as the Step Pyramid. This was 4700 years ago, or roughly between the 3000 and 2000 BCE, a time when the Indus Valley Civilization in India and Sumerian Civilization in Mesopotamia were at their peak. Slowly, in another 500 years, the step pyramid became the single structure and using Imohotep’s invention of using stone blocks, the modern say pyramid was born. Today, at Giza, three pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure are instances of the final stage of the evolution of the pyramids. And like Imohotep, the Old Kingdom produced some genii engineers who rose to positions of great eminence with their own pyramids and masatabas at the Giza site.

We entered the pyramids, daunted by its darkness, stuffiness, the uneven walls closing upon steep ramps and the height of our climb. Sweating profusely, stepping with great difficulty and much panting and puffing we managed to visit the empty coffin of Khufu in the largest pyramid. It is like walking straight inside a very rough and jagged MRI machine. Then there is quite a crowd inside the pyramid that raises the torture metre higher. But we did it, knee pain, hip pain, pulled muscles, fractured toe, breathlessness and above all age were all cast aside with the grave determination to soak in the experience of having entered the eeriest architecture of mankind. The sheer size of the pyramids is a mystery; why these gigantic dimensions? Since the structure stands up on its own weight, the weights of the constituent stones must find their centre of gravity, empty spaces and stone blocks must be balanced against one another in complex networks of priest ways and service lanes leading up to the place of final resting. I have a guess and which is that the size has emerged in order to balance the chambers and the pathways inside the pyramid.

It seems that the preservation of the dead bodies was a general practice of Egyptians because of the various states of conservation of the Naqadda graves of pre dynasty and even prehistory, but what was unique about the great kings of the pyramids was the funerary processions and the lifelong funerary tributes to the dead. The everlasting duration of the tribute to the dead which assured an endless flow of goods and services to the royals was reinforced with the elaborate belief in an afterlife in which many Gods and Goddesses who represented merely the forces of Nature in the folk tradition now had elaborate myths pertaining to transformation of forms especially in the surreal world of the dead. The most important text in Egypt, needless to say was the Book of the Dead.

Along with royalty emerged the priests, who often doubled up as medicine persons as well as Anubis, the God is seen as the physician in numerous paintings and carvings as administering chemicals for mummification. But, as we were to see in the Cairo Museum that there was a distinct category of the class of scribes, those looking like typical Bengalis with wide eyes and thin lips engaged with heaps of papers (papyrus) and a quill. I learn from various sources on ancient Egypt that the papyrus, the material for writing did not emerge till as late as the Middle Kingdom, at least four hundred years down the line from the Old Kingdom. Stone was usually used for writing and sometimes the tablets and plates of alabaster. Writing in the form of pictures, which we call as the hieroglyphics appears to be a pre-dynasty business which started with the Badarian culture that succeeded the Naqadda age but came into existence before the Kingdom and the State in Egypt. The Badarians painted their pottery with pictures and these were the first instance of published works, pottery also served as the purpose of the novel! Egyptian State relied heavily on writing albeit through the pictures to justify their collection of surplus.

It seems that during times forgotten when the Jews migrated into the Levant, they spread the rumour that the Egyptian pyramids were built using slave labour. Much later the American archaeologists dismissed such falsehood by saying that each stone had to be glazed and smoothened, shaped and set on other stones all of which required extreme focus, keen attention and deep knowledge, and which is not possible for slave labour to do. Recent theories insist that the workers of the pyramid were already the most talented ones and by seeing many graves of such workers in the same campus as that of the Pharaohs, one may infer that being involved in the pyramid work was a way to upward mobility. No wonder then that the cult of the dead only grew in time.

But yes, such large construction projects needed resources and it seems that the Old Kingdom invented the system of the census and the tax and which perhaps explains why there was such a large body of professional scribes. When we travelled over the Nile the following morning, we saw that the river was bordered on each bank by thin strips of green and the lands beyond these were daunting deserts of the Sahara, the world’s driest place. No wonder then people from across the desert would flock near the river and the river valley would have an aggregation of people who would be both producers as well as consumers of material goods. It is not surprising that the earliest civilizations grew up in the desert areas punctuated by a huge river valley for such geographies help concentrate humans together in a limited space and thus makes possible both production and exchange.

Exhausted by our entry into and exit from the pyramids, we treated ourselves with a camel ride in the desert. Uncomfortable initially with the camel’s movements, we soon were comfortable to enjoy the walk through the desert; the locals call the camel ride as sailing or swimming through sands which suits the epithet of the Ship of the Desert for the camel. Two among us took the horse carriage while three sat by at the edge of the pyramids. We took a long circle into the desert and while I was enamored by the sheer size of the structures, they seemed now to vanish into insignificance of the expanse of the sand, so much older and yet so much real than the necropolis. I sensed that despite the huge dimensions of their structures, the pharaohs were aware of their irrelevance in relation to this infinite space of the desert.


15th March 2018, Noon


The Cairo Museum


We went for an exquisite Egyptian lunch at a floating restaurant over the Nile shaped like a boat. The Egyptians are great boat builders; they have sailed across the seas but the priority seemed to be the sail through the Nile. The challenge of the Nile lay in its cataracts, or a built up of rocks that obstruct the passage of boats. The Egyptians had to depend on people on the other side of the cataracts in order to continue their trade through the relay system, without which they might have had to dismantle the boats and reassemble it beyond the obstruction. The cataracts were perhaps the reason why people often aligned with one another and which may also be the reason why it has always been important for Egypt to politically unite the North and the South of the land running alongside the Nile. From the restaurant we watched the fishermen engaged in their catch; the woman sat back at the boat extricating the fish from the net, while the man was focused on casting the net and pulling it back. The man and his wife seem to be a stuff from the motifs of ancient art all over the funerary temples of the Giza, no man seems to go out for work without his wife especially since the Gods were always with their Heavenly spouses.


After the heavy lunch we steeled ourselves to visit the Cairo Museum. Now we drove through the posh locality of the city and the differences in the lay out and infrastructure of the rich down town and the poorer suburbs was stark. The Egyptian government subsidizes the peta bread because the poor run the business of baking this bread. Everyone in the city live in high rises, there do not seem to be slums in the city. The price of real estate is very high in Cairo at least three times as much as it is in Delhi. The poor people build their homes tentatively; they do not plaster the outer walls because that would invite less tax from the municipal corporations and also leave their homes unfinished to make provisions for subsequent addition of floors. Egyptian families love to stay together and married sons often have a flat to themselves with a separate kitchen in the same building as parents and other siblings. While there is no dowry in the Egyptian society, yet parents of the girl are supposed to furnish the bedroom with beds, mattresses, cupboards and so on, much like the Bengali customs.


The first thing I noticed in the Cairo museum was the lush green copse of papyrus, a plant that our guide told us had gone out of cultivation ever since paper was invented in India. Paper was invented in China but one could only write on such paper and not preserve it; paper that served the purpose of papyrus used both for writing as well as preserving was a Central Asian invention, loosely referred to as India. For many in the West, especially the ancient world, much of Persia, Samarqand, and Uzbekistan up to the steppes of the Urals was known as India. Not very unlikely because in my recent visit to this part of the world has shown me how common our mythologies and our beliefs are. Prof Anas Mustafa revived the culture of growing papyrus in 1977 and spread it among villagers who made a good living by selling to tourists. However, not many are cured in the way that they should be and many of the cheaper varieties are stiff and brittle.


The next thing that I noticed at the museum were the statues, overwhelmingly large. Our guide, Mr Hassan, a major in Ancient History, Archaeology and Hieroglyphics told us that the statues which had their feet together and hands folded across their chests were representations of dead people while those with open arms and with the left foot forward represented the live people. There were statues of priests and scribes, very Bengali looking, there were ropes for ramps of the pyramids and a wooden lever as well; there was a boat and various panels from the site of the Giza pyramid. The main collections were however from the Middle Period, of 2500 BCE in which agnate eyes of statues made them look life like.


There was a huge collection of mummies, both humans as well as of animals; preserved very well especially as the dead animals were important mascots of the Egyptians. The dog of Ramses II for who the King has a huge decree to assist hos spirit travel to the other world till he is united with his master beyond life. The birds were well preserved with all their feathers, birds having a cosmic significance in Egypt. Then there were the mummies of all the well know Kings and Queens; many Queens especially Hatchepsut ruled as a male Pharaoh for twenty long years consisting of a Golden Age of Egypt. There were Neferati, Nefertiti and many others. The mummies were skeletons with their dried skin on top. The sarcophagus bore masks resembling the faces of the dead to tell us who these people were when they were alive. It is a good decision that human cultures in general no longer wish to keep back their dead; death is not aesthetic when lifeless bodies are preserved.


We saw the many sarcophaguses of Tutankhamen, his body being kept inside a series of coffins, his resplendent gold, the lock of hair which his grandmother gave him in his journey to the afterlife, the high level of crafts which were attained especially in the fine business of jewelry making and gold engraving seem to be of the highest class even today.


Mummification had an elaborate procedure which required very fine metal instrument to disembowel and take out the organs. Only the heart was left inside the body and we saw the reason for it in a panel of paintings. The Egyptians believed that in the Last Judgment, as the spirit passes through the gates of the other world, s/he has her or his heart weighed and only if the heart is light as a feather can the spirit pass on. Mummies of Ramses’s dog and some of the birds seem to be fresh corpses, stuffed for decoration. There are frogs and crocodiles, cats and pigeons to the galore.


The Old Kingdom appears to be better preserved in terms of their artefacts because here we see combs, thimbles, needles and pincers, we see the boats, ropes with which pyramids were built and the various clamps used for carriages. But where are the heavy instruments for war or for mining the huge granite and the stones? Where are the tools with which the blocks were smoothened and shaped, where are the compasses and the calipers to measure acutely the position of the stars? These, will forever remain to me the mysteries of the museum.

At the exit of the museum is a wonderful shopping arcade and we bought quite some stuff as mementoes. I bought a book about the Cairo Museum and one about the Pyramids and the Sphinx. True we saw only a fraction of what Egypt has to offer but given the limited time and money, I think that we tasted quite a representative sample.


15th March 2018 Evening


Al Khalili

The Al Khalili market where we landed for our evening tea held promise of shopping. There were shops on the streets and curios and curiosities in the by lanes. Madhusree and I walked through the alleys picking up souvenirs for friends and family while the restaurants were bracing up for some music and dance. The azan broke out in the mosque on the market and unlike in the Middle East, I saw no one rush towards the building or break into a namaz; life went on as usual, haggling, calling, selling, buying, smoking and sipping tea.


Madhuleena ordered some Turkish coffee, which came in the form of a dark and unpleasant liquid and the tea which someone else from the group ordered it had only milk and ginger. The man serving us imagined that since she ordered for milk and sugar, she must not have wanted the tea leaves. Madhuleena tried mixing the milk and sugar served in lieu of tea only to invite the utter contempt of the man serving her. You India, he said peeved, you only want milk and tea, implying that we have no taste for refined Egyptians beverages. Some other people in our group smoked the sheesham, a hookah with flavoured non-tobacco smokes.


Egypt is a country where tourism constitutes 30% of the economy. The tour guides are some of the most educated people in the country and constitute an important part of the intellectuals. No wonder then Srijit Mukherjee showed them involved with the successive revolutions in Egypt. But the ordinary people, namely the shopkeepers and the restaurateurs put on a face of politeness and feign a demeanour of courtesy but the underlying contempt and disdain for tourists are pretty apparent.


Totally tired despite the day being cloudy we headed back to the hotel for dinner and then crashed into bed only to rise very early in the morning and drive down to the airport while it was still dark.


16th March 2018, Morning


The Desert


We boarded the plane for Aswan in an early morning flight from Cairo carrying our breakfast boxes in the wee hours of the morning most of us still groggy from the hectic site seeing on the previous day. When we landed in Aswan it was still a very pleasant early morning and the levels of pollution being less and the air being clear, the sun seemed to be sharper. We boarded the small sixteen-seater bus and sped through the deserts of the Sahara towards the southern borders of Egypt where Sudan was and towards the western horizon lay Libya.


Hassan, our guide told us that Aswan, the place we were headed to would be warmer than Cairo and of course sunnier. So it was. Aswan was sunny and bright as we were coming out of the airport headed for a long drive through the desert. This is southern Egypt, or Upper Egypt because the Nile flows from the south to the North. Rising in the snows of the mountains in Tanzania, this mighty river flows through the desert into the Mediterranean. In the Book of the Dead, one of the biggest sins one can commit in life so as not to be able to pass through the heart weighing test of the afterlife is to pollute the river! Have you washed your feet in the Nile? If yes, then you fail to pass the feather test of Maat, the Goddess of Truth. The desert is flooded by the Nile and in some spots where some water gets trapped lie the Oases turn into small villages, enough for just living. Anything extra that you may need you travel, migrate, immigrate in order to be able to trade. The Empire is important for they regulate trade by regulating the territory and by regulating the rules. For societies such as the ones found in this desert cannot grow into large clans and tribes, and hence remain isolated from one another.


I try to think about Claude Levi Strauss when he says that the constitutive and the most significantly differentiating factor of the human society is incest, because here some women are given up to other men in marriage; marriage forms social bonds for biological reproduction does not need a social institution. Marriage is a social institution which is used primarily to increase social alliances. But alliances are difficult in the desert; trade may be easier than marriage. The State which controls trade seems to have been an easier evolution than the Church which controls the social customs. Here in this desert, reproduction have often been through the breaking of the incest taboos, oftentimes the case with isolated tribes. Indeed, the royal family sanctions sexual relations among sisters and brothers, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons; because of the difficulty of marriage in the desert.

The Northern desert is dull and dusty, brown and sallow but the southern desert is dark and hostile. Here rises dunes and mountains seeming like intricately carved manmade structures and sculptures. There is dust of black granite and there is spillage from some meteor shower before Time began on earth. One of the world’s oldest physical features, the southern Sahara is silent and distant, dead and yet much like the mummies of the pyramid appear to be alive because of being so dead. Then there are mirages, where rocks seem like boats afloat in the sea!! The mirage is an optical illusion formed when the air close to the ground gets so heated that it refracts light to produce the effect of a shimmer which we then imagine as water. It is in this desert that the politics of Egypt have shaped up, the river has changed its course, its flood levels varied to produce diverse and often uncertain outcomes. Tribes have risen and fallen just like the tides of the Nile and accordingly sometimes surrendered and at other times revolted against the King. Egypt’s history is one of endless negotiations with the various tribes both as war and as trade.


The public toilets everywhere in Egypt are clean and have water and hand wash. One really never misses a clean facility in the country. But Hassan had forewarned us that the desert may not have any facility to relieve oneself; nonetheless there was a toilet and fearing that we may get nothing either and this being the desert there is no way in which one can openly urinate or defecate, we decided to use whatever came our way. This was a waterless and yet a paid toilet and the ladies in our group were very angry because of the stench and the filth the toilet emitted. I noticed later that there was a steel bucket and a water tap some distance away from the toilet and we were supposed to carry the bucket full of water from some distance despite paying money. Egyptians can be rather dishonest though they are trying their level best to be professional, after all, tourism is the largest occupation and industry in the country and everyone wants to be a part of this industry. Yet, try as they may they cannot hide their contempt for the “lesser” people among who definitely the Indians count. I think that had it been the foreigners, the man would have brought forth the bucket of water but for us, also as women, he refused to oblige.


We reached an oasis in the form of a Nubian village after a three-and-a-half-hour drive through what was almost an empty straight road through the desert. The Nubian village had a traditional bungalow with a small library, a vintage gramophone player and appeared never to have emerged beyond the 1920’s except for its rather modern and clean toilet. At this resort we were to have a traditional and a typical Nubian meal which consisted of fried brinjals and a masoor daal soup which was nothing but the Bengali begun bhaja and mushurir dal. With slices of lemon and gigantic green chillies, we ate with appetite. Nubian food almost has no spices and most of it is boiled, except the baked telapiya with herbs which tasted like the Mediterranean cuisine of Northern lower country. The hosts were pleasant men of all heights, weights and ages and they served us, looked after us as we ate under the vaulted canopy of mud bricks coated with plasters made of cow dung. The walls of the huts are thick and despite standing in the heat of the sand the indoors are cool.


At this village, we saw the Nile, once more, now in its upper reaches, bluer than ever. It is hard to believe how blue the Nile is and how unreal it looks as it flows through sand and the rocks dotted occasionally with marshes on which grow wild, the almost mythical plant of Egypt, the papyrus.


We clicked pictures of the men with their costumes and marvelled at their wonderful library, though most of the titles were in French. The influence of the French in Egypt is distinct and vital. They do speak English and indeed fluently but when they have to read books and serious stuff, I think that French it will be. I balked at the total invisibility of the women. Really, where were they? it seemed rather odd that here was a household without women?


Anyway, thoroughly pleased with the lunch, we climbed back to the bus for a visit to the Abu Simbel.



16th March 2018, Morning


Abu Simbel



We are headed towards a temple called the Abu Simbel located on the banks of the Lake Nasser, yet another cataract of the Nile. When the Aswan dam was constructed the temples at Abu Simbel was immersed in water. The Unesco funded its retrieval from underneath the Ramesid water into the banks where even the original mountain was shifted as well. The restoration of this temple and that of Philae, both on the West Bank of the Nile in southern Egypt are unrivalled feats in engineering matched perhaps only by the pyramid builders themselves. Abu Simbel is built by Ramses II, the greatest of Ramesid dynasty, one who rose from a family of military generals into the Pharaohdom by marrying into the royal family of Thutmoses. It was he who defeated the Hittites, invaders and occupants of Egypt during the chaotic times after Tutankhamen’s death. In the battle of Kadesh, a field close to Libya, Ramses II slaughtered the Hittites and freed as well as United the upper and the lower Nile Delta once again. The temple of Abu Simbel was most probably in celebration of the victory and has a rather modern nationalistic flavour. The huge 22-meter-high and 4-metre-wide on ear to ear repeated many times is a testimony to the fact that he wished to become the superman who could restore glory to ancient Egypt. Ramses bases himself on two distinct features and which will lead to the construction of similar temples during the Ptolemic period much later. These are the uses of motifs from the upper and lower Egypt like the Lotus of the North and the Papyrus of the South and the worship of Osiris, the God who died young and whose body was found strewn all over Egypt. I find some resemblance between the Osiris myth and the myth of King Bali of the Onam game and the casting of the 52 body parts of Sati in India. Osiris’s penis was never found and his wife had to restore one for him, out of which she conceived her son Horus. With Ramses II every King is supposed to rule as Horus to continue the line of Osiris.


Though I saw nothing that suggested war in the Cairo museum yet the temple of Abu Simble appeared as the war memorial. There are images of defeated and crushed enemies, namely the Hittites, a suggestion of having cleared the river of the Hittite pirates whereby the cargo was free to move through the Nile. I say this because there is a carving of a boat with heaps of Papyrus and the figure of a cow wearing the crown of Hathor, the Goddess of fertility and trade, or may be the Cow Goddess. There may be many meanings to this symbol and as Hassan, our erudite guide was explaining some of the images of the friezes on the walls, I had a distinct realization that the pictures in Egypt are actually forms of writings and that sentences get written through the pictures especially when they occur on top of one another or side by side. Hassan had earlier said in the museum that the hieroglyphics could be written in any manner, left to right, right to left, top to bottom and bottom to top, and in Order to make sense one had to carefully observe the direction on the movement of the pictures. Clearly then we have Ramses being crowned by Anubis who rather strangely also places the Aankh or the key of life into his mouth, much like a funerary practice of opening of the mouth after death. Death for the Egyptians do not appear to be an end of life, but a new beginning, a kind of promotion into the next category of being and hence both the coronation and the funeral look alike. I thought I had bought an alabaster plate of Ramses’s funeral from a flea market near the Sphinx but it turned out to be a scene from his coronation.


I also understood at the temple that it has always been a challenge for the Egyptian emperors to be able to unite the North and the South of the Nile as well as the east and the western banks. I also understood that the Gods were often metaphors and syntaxes because the men could wear the hats of the Gods or present them as deities by inserting their faces into them. The sacred appears to be a metaphor of the profane and do not inhabit distinct spaces. No wonder then that the temples are places for offering to the King for He and the God are one and the same only.


The walls of the temple had exquisite paintings carved by sharp knives and colours inserted. Unfortunately, none of that remains due to the vagaries of the weather and the floods of the Nile. The paintings depicted the prescriptions for offerings, the preferred trade of goods and ofcourse the subjugation of enemies. The violence is mainly manifested in the pulling of the hair of the victims and crushing them below the feet. There are some dead adversaries and some beheaded ones as well but the overall moderation of violence is laudable.


Hassan tells us that Ramses was one hell of an egoist who replicated himself shamelessly but I noticed a play of the number 8. There are eight figures of Ramses, four on either wall of the pylon, there are also eight figures on either side of the corridor also looking like Ramses except that their eyes were drawn up to look like those of Gods and they were corpses because the feet were together and hands across their chests even while they held some staffs which looked like the insignia of power. They were statues of Osiris, the God who died and is buried deep inside the earth. The number eight in ancient Babylon and Sumeria, in China and also in medieval India represented the Universe most holistically; it signifying all the directions of the earth. Does the configuration then mean that Ramses is exhausting the world? Does it mean that he is adopting the culture of distant lands into those of Egypt’s? Are the Osiris figures those of the dead no arches, or regional monarchs who helped Ramses in the eviction of the Hittites?


Beside the temple of Ramses lie the temple of his principal wife Nefertati. He has many wives but she is the one who is most favourite. From the portrayal of the Queen, often with eyes lined with kohl stretching all the way to her temples and her stand in attention pose with feet together and hands across her chest, one gets the impression that here is not a co regent but a dead queen. Nefertiti, I have now looked up the Oxford history of Egypt to find that she died at the age of 25 while Ramses II lived beyond seventy years of age. In her tomb the queen brings together a huge number of Gods like Ra, Amun, AmunNi, Isis and Osiris and even Ptah to who she pays homage in the underworld only to get in return their essences so that she emerges as the greatest of the great, most probably Hathor, her favourite Deity. The combination of Gods is important for they integrate different communities and different ages of Egyptian History.




17th March 2018,


The Aswan Dam and the Perfume Factory


On the morning of the 17th March 2018, we took off from the boat after eating piles of cheese, sausages, cold cuts, eggs, breads, pastry, fruits, yogurt and tea towards the point from where we gingerly ambled into a felucca to sail to the temple of Philae built by Nectanabo II, the last of all the Egyptian Pharaohs because after him came the Greeks to rule over Egypt as Egyptian Pharaohs, in a long running dynasty bearing the name of Ptolemies. While Nectanebo built all the Ptolemic temples around Aswan and Luxor, namely Philae, Edfu, Kom Ombo and Essna, each of these were completed by the Greek rulers. Since the days of the female Pharaoh, Hatchepsut who led an expedition into the Nubian lands, the one like the village in which we had our meals last afternoon, the Nubians were involved in a series of trading rights; one of these were that no one but the Nubians could set sail across the Nile to carry priests and Kings, engineers and artists from the east to the west bank. Guaranteeing such rights Hatchepsut could ensure loyalty and willing surrender from a people against who she personally waged wars.


Every travel spot of Egypt offers attractive shopping prospects and fearing that we may lose precious time in haggling and bargaining over souvenirs, Hassan nicely got the sellers of curios on to our felucca. Here too many among us bought beads and other beautiful stuff. On our way to and from the temple we spotted on a hill atop the Kitchener’s island, the tomb of Aga Khan of India who died in Egypt where he stayed on for quite sometime to undergo the traditional therapy for rheumatism.

After the visit to Philae, we stopped by at the Aswan dam, created first in 1902 as a low dam and then rebuilt as a high dam in the 1960’s supposedly to control the floods of the Nile river. Many temples including the one of Philae and Abu Simbel were submerged in its waters only to be restored by the efforts of the UNESCO. The flood of the Nile has been the life force of Egypt, the very reason for its civilization and yet modernity requires that river to be now bound. The Nile no longer floods, it irrigates and no wonder the buoyancy in its life brought about by the floods is now lost under regimes of regulated flow of what we can rightly call as its blood.

We stop next at a perfume factory. I was very reluctant to go into a shopping place again and I know that the Government run or Government approved shops are very expensive. I had a taste of this on our way from Abu Simbel where the textile outlet was ridiculously priced high. But the perfume factory, though very expensive was something never experienced before. Here literally one drop of perfume could aromatize an entire glass of 200 ml of water! Perfumery is essential to Egypt, it was invented here to embalm the dead but slowly as the dead got buried better and especially underground, perfumes were free to essentialize the bodies of mortals. No wonder then there is hectic shopping here.


We return to the cruise, have our lunch and soon the boat leaves the shores to float on the Nile, passing by marshes and desert in equal frequency. Sometimes we pass through villages, at other times through factories belching smoke. There are boats that pass us by carrying papyrus, for it is still used to thatch Nubian homes along with liquid dung and mud. There are cows in cow sheds and some goat here and there but unlike in India, I see no bare bottoms or naked bodies, no washing of clothes or utensils in the river, no fetching of water and in fact strangely, not even fishing. Egypt’s population is only 27 million and a third of who are concentrated in the city of Cairo and another third in the cities of Luxor and Aswan; the villages seem to be fairly sparsely populated.


After a session of tea and cookies on the upper most deck known as the sun deck, we alight at Kom Ombo, temples dedicated to the crocodile God, Sobek and the falcon God, Horus.


In the evening our tour manager, Ashray got us drinks and played some music and in the cool breeze of the Nile, we chatted about fitness exercises and yoga. The next morning, we would have to rise early and travel in horse drawn carriages to Edfu to see yet another Ptolemaic temple of Egypt.


17th and 18th March 2018, Morning

The Ptolemaic Temples


Ptolemy is the name of the famous Greek mathematician, geographer and historian and who ruled over Egypt for a considerable period of time. But Ptolemy was not really a single person but a title that Greek rulers of Egypt adopted through generations. The Ptolemaic period ends typically with Cleopatra, once again, this being a generic name for queens over generations. Our Cleopatra was the final one after which the Greek dynasty was replaced by the Romans who ruled the country until the end of the Roman Empire. The Greeks were invaders into Egypt overthrowing the local rulers who inherited and fractured an Empire of the Ramesids, among who the Ramseses were great rulers. The Greek conquest of Egypt was really not a surprise for more than one reason. Firstly, the quest for knowledge in the Graecian civilization had led them frequently to Egypt especially the knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and structural engineering and of course surgery and medicines. Egypt, especially after the Middle Kingdom had forayed in the Aegen Sea and Asia Minor both to trade as well as to subjugate by war. It is not unlikely that some kind of interest of the Greeks would develop around Egypt. The second reason could be that Alexander The Great whose dream of conquering the world was actually the conquer the Persian occupied territory, his father being killed by the Persian King, Darius, automatically invaded Egypt because it was a Persian territory. Alexander also conquered much of Central Asia into which he left Seleucus, once again a generic name for a general to rule after he left. These kingdoms were known as Selucids and formed quite a cultural and a political unity. Egypt was not a Selucid; it was Ptolemaic, conquered and ruled by a dynasty whose aim was to acquire knowledge from a people who unfortunately were their vassals. The three temples, namely of Philae, Kom Ombo and Edfu were built by the Ptolemies.

The temples were built much like the Greek Temples with pillars and a courtyard but the outside wall was high and dense much like that of a pyramid. The walls had a pylon, meaning a doorway or a gate through which one could enter the inner courtyards. There were a series of courtyards to be accessed through yet another series of pylons, each one representing the privilege of access. The commoners could only access upto the first courtyard while the third or sometimes the fourth would be the entrance into the Holy sanctorum. The plan of the courtyards perhaps reflected the deep inequality between the rulers and the ruled. Greece was a democracy but among the equals and not between the plebians and the elites, unlike in modern day democracies. Also, because the Greeks were democratic and did not have a ruler as in a Roman Emperor of the later days, their mythologies tended to look like stories about Gods and Goddesses rather than portray the Divine as a metaphor of the temporal King. Hence, these temples appear to have drawn more from the popular tales and therefore, instead of the cults of Amun or Ra, we have stories of Isis and Osiris. The cult of the Osiris started in the Middle Kingdom around a folk God of the Dead. Actually, his is more the story of an avenging son, Horus who is supposed to be the cult King. The Middle Kingdom was the first one that made an attempt to integrate the commoner to the royalty.

There is yet another interesting feature of these temples; everywhere the original Egyptian Kings who laid the foundation of these temples are acknowledged and even privileged. In fact, in many of these, cartouches which should bear the names of the several Ptolemies are unmarked. This, seemed to be to be a kind of hesitation on part of the Greeks to call themselves as rulers and also a desire to mingle indeterminably into Egypt as its own people. The other feature of interest is the use of the columns which principally serve the purpose of holding up the ceilings. The ceilings are painted with the myths of the Sky God and the Sun God and bear may astronomical motifs. The pillars are engraved with texts of celebrations of major festivals, spells for offerings and recipes for festive cooking and offerings. Astronomy and medicine emerge as main subjects for the engravings. In fact, at Edfu there are detailed description the visitation of Hathor to Dendera temple as a fertility rite. Edfu is the only place, perhaps in the world, where we have the name of Alexander written in. It is strange that this conqueror of the world does not have a single signature anywhere except at Edfu.

The Greeks were invaders into Egypt and yet they wished to settle down permanently in the land and be integrated into its culture especially into the kingship. On the outside of the temple walls they would show elaborate offering by the various Ptolemies to the pantheon of Gods, Horus, Amun, Hathor and Ra. They portrayed themselves as being ingratiated by Anubis himself, or being blessed by Horus. They whip up the myth of Isis and Osiris by projecting Horus as the revenge seeking son and merge Hathor, the cow Goddess and Isis together. Osiris remains rather hidden except the choice of location for the temples, namely Philae, Edfu and Kom Ombo are sites which are rife with mythological episodes from the lives of Isis and Osiris.

Osiris gets killed by his brother Seth and his coffin is cast into the sea; his wife, Isis assumes the form of a falcon and retrieves the body and buries him. But Seth soon discovers the body and cuts it into many pieces and once again, Isis collects the various parts of the body and Anubis sews up the body and mummifies it. Philae is the place where Osiris is said to have lost his penis as the cat fish ate it up. The cat fish is a taboo in Egypt. It is also said that no bird flies over the island and no fish swims its shores.

Osiris was drowned in the water and thereafter he becomes the God of the Dead, inhabiting the sunless world of the oceans or the subterranean spaces of the earth. This is why it is believed that he rises with the flood of the Nile and brings forth the crops. Sobek, the crocodile God, who rules over the Nile is particularly close to Osiris and helps Horus to meet his father in the Netherland. The temple where Horus makes friends with Sobek is the temple of Kom Ombo. The temple, like the temple of Philae was started during the New Kingdom, of which queens like Nefertari, Nefretiti, Hatchepshut and Tutankhamen were parts of. This kingdom extended its borders deeper into the south and Sobek, the Deity of the Faiyyum people of the south became a major Deity of the Kingdom. The city was called as Nubt, or the city of gold and later called as Kom Ombo, Ombi meaning agriculture in Greek. The temple of Kom Ombo is divided clearly into two mirror images, one for Sobek and the other for Horus, signifying their new-found friendship. The temple has crocodile mummies and most interestingly the Egyptian calendar with calculations for the Leap year. At Edfu, Horus finally kills Seti, who appears in the form of a Hippopotamus. The temple celebrates the Lioness Goddess, Sekhmet as well, also worshipped by the boat people of Faiyyum. At Edfu, we see much more of Isis opening her wings protectively around her loved ones though the temple is dedicated to Horus, the son, whose magnificent statues wearing both crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt decorate the entrance of the temples. At Kom Ombo we see the step well which is shaped like the key of life or the ankh.

Whether the temples are of Philae, or Kom Ombo or even Dendera or Essna, they are built by the side of the Nile and would be inundated in the flood. All these temples have the flood metres called as the Nilometre to measure the extent of the flood of the Nile. Our guide said that the measurement of the flood was linked to the assessment of tax on the farmers and hence very important. But I wondered why the temples were built in the catchment of the floods; surely the Nile floods have been taking place since the beginning of Time. I fancied that because these were Osirian temples, finally dedicated to Osiris, celebrating the places of his myth, and because he lives under the water, the temples too were arranged to be immersed under water at least for some time in each year.


18th March 2018, Noon

The Essna Lock


There was great excitement after we returned in the same horse carriage in which we had driven down to Edfu from our boat now anchored in the city. This is because the Essna lock was approaching and passing of ships through the locks is something to experience.

Hassan told us that Edfu is an industrial city run by the Nubians and the Nubians are supposed to be the main minority community in Egypt. It is interesting to note that the Nubians of the south mainly live in Sudan and they had also for some time ruled Egypt. It is entirely possible that the boat people portrayed in Edfu are the Nubian kings and many say that the post Amarna people which consisted of Tutankhamen and Nefriti were Nubians too. Anyway, the loyalty of the Nubians is towards Sudan as we saw Sudan Café, Sudan stores lined up along the narrow lanes of a rather derelict town, once of worth but now looks like a mofussil. When we had driven up the lanes of Edfu in the morning we saw some small piles of urban waste lying about near the eateries but as we return by mid-morning, we see a spotlessly clean city. This is not a rich city and rather it is a city that has lost its sheen post decolonization and yet it is much cleaner than what any lane of south Delhi or west Delhi would be!! It is poor, but it is clean.

I am surprised how we reined in our shopalcoholism at Edfu because some of the fine designs in the form of shirts we saw at the Aswan textile factory were available at fraction of the prices at the horse carriage station. But may be the stench of the horses and the unfamiliarity of the horse stables put us off the items. Despite no shopping we seemed to spend a lot more time at the Edfu temple impressed by its epic stories told very dramatically by Hassan that we were at the nick of time to ramble back into the boat and grabbed a hearty breakfast just as the crew were winding up service.

At noon we were supposed to cross the Essna lock. Essna is yet another city of Upper Egypt, south of Luxor but north of Aswan. The Nile has two kinds of obstacles, one is the cataract which is an ensemble of rocks that obstruct the smooth passage through the river and the other is a cascade where the river falls from a higher plane into the lower. Both cause problems in navigation. Essna is a cascade where the river falls into a lower height. The Essna lock is a pair of giant lock gates one of which stands on the higher plane while the other is at a lower plane. Water is collected between the gates as if in a bath tub. The vessel passes from the higher level of the bed into this tub. After the vessel is fully ensconced within the tub, water is slowly drained out by opening out the lower gate and the ship slowly falls into the lower plane of the flow. This is an amazing experience though horribly marred by hawkers who ride on small row boats, screaming and bargaining at the top of their voices selling cheap towels and bed covers and table cloths. Their cries are deafening as they lolly their goods wrapped in polythene packets up at the high deck where passengers are standing to watch the lock gates. They have no concern for their safety for they, like a colony of bees constantly hum around the boat calling out to the passengers; even as gates open and close they are least concerned that they may get locked between the gates or may be sucked into the hull of the cruise vessel.


19th March 2018, Morning


The Valley of Kings


In the hot air balloon in the unmerciful hours of the morning we floated above the Valley of Kings, a dry place, perhaps the world’s driest in which lay the Ramesid monarchs and the post Amarna Pharaohs, especially Tutankhamen. We also saw the sun rise. I was so looking forward to the experience of the hot air balloon but it emerged as a damper. We are so used to high rises these days that heights no longer appeal to us. Besides, the company had stuffed many of us into the small basket; the sound of the gas and the heat of the charge was very uncomfortable. Besides, the balloons don’t land easily on ground, they bump off into the air as soon as they touch the ground. With much verbal expletives our pilot who also looked a bit like Captain Haddock of Tintin comics, somehow got us off close to a garbage heap. We had to be lifted by burly men from the basket on to the ground with muscle pulls and ligament snitches.


We returned to the boat and after a quick bath and a hearty breakfast we checked out of the cruise to arrive at the Valley of Kings to now from the ground the tombs of the Ramesid dynasty. These are burial tombs, a necropolis, located to the West bank of the Nile across Luxor, situated in the eastern side. The east is the direction of life, the west being that of death in the Egyptian vaastu. So it is also for the fengshui. The tombs are designed much like those of the pyramids, except that they are dug inside the rocks and not heaped into the high rising pyramids. The rocks are rugged and it seems as if a Ramses is staring out of it, the head of the sphinx jutting out of the relief. Somewhere one spots a mastabah, at other times, it seems as if a rough-cut pyramid stands silently to the endless time that goes by it. The carvings are part of the landscapes, human endeavours imitate the natural physical relief of the earth in this part.


It is not easy to appreciate Egypt without some level of familiarity with the Book of the Dead because the tombs are decorated with the episodes from the Book of the Dead. Due to their buriedness into the rocks, these temples have been able to preserve their paintings almost in their original states and one gets the idea how glamorous the Egyptian tomb and temple paintings were in the times when they were still fresh. The Ramses Kings were elaborate in their portrayals of the various spells in the Book of The Dead to aid their easy passage into the other world. There were insets in the walls of the caves with paintings of food, images of musicians and seers and storytellers who would tell the tales of how the king will have to negotiate with the various obstacles in the afterlife. As if in a manner of reassuring, the Sun God is also seen to die each night only to be reborn out of the Sky God every morning.


It seems that the idea of the cyclical time was discovered with the Ramsesids while the conception of Time in ancient Egypt was largely linear. The cyclical nature of time must have been a definite step towards the establishment of a calendar because in Abu Simbel, Ramses has his statue among Ra Harakhti, Amun and Ptah upon who shines the sun during 22nd February and 22nd October, the dates of his ascension to the throne and his birthday. The idea of the journey of the Sun goes on through almost all the tombs of the Rameses in the Valley of Kings. Indeed, in the later Graeco Roman temples, the Egyptian solar calendar is displayed everywhere. Unlike the Mayas and the Incas, where the eclipse seemed to be a major reason for pursuing the worship of the Sun, for the Egyptians, it was the flooding of the Nile which in turn seems to be associated with the Sun rather than with the Moon.

The Valley of Kings also houses the tombs of Ahmenhotep, some Tuthmoses and Hatchepsut, indicating that the Valley was first established by the New Kingdom. The tomb of Tutankhamen is also in the Valley and one has to pay separately for the visit. It is a tiny one, but a sad one; for here dies a boy whose step-mother or grandmother is Nefrititi who loads the boy with gold, paints upon his sarcophagus, which we saw in the Cairo museum, with scenes of royal hunts, a feat which he may have performed only had he lived on. Tutankhamen died a mere boy at the age of 14 and the paintings in his tomb are of fourteen baboons, the avatar of wisdom, wit and intelligence. There are scenes of Tut being taken over in good custody by the Gods in the afterlife but not before grandma hands him her lock of hair to give courage in his onward journey into death. The mummy was small and thin with rather large feet which shows that the boy was active and did a lot of running about.

The sun shone with a blinding white light and though we paid extra for our camera, I could see nothing. I have randomly clicked.



19th March 2018, Noon


I Am A Fan of Hot Chicken Soup


Hassan called her as the Hot Chicken Soup or better still, Hat Cheap Suit, for these were the easier ways to pronounce the name of Hatchepsut, the legendary female Pharaoh of Egypt. She expanded the Empire substantially, perhaps the most into Libya and Nubia and towards Algeria in the West and much of Ethiopia. She brought trees from the places she visited and planted them to grow at her temple next to the Valley of Kings. This is a mortuary temple, temple which is built to commemorate her after her death. A large Sphinx bearing her face sits at the entrance and the temple is cut deep into rocks. At the entrance, or the pylon are her images, three statues are visible, the fourth seems to have been vandalized beyond retrieval. Inside her temple are scenes of her grand offerings to Amun, who she claimed in the temple of Luxor to be her father. Then she has Pharaohs making offerrings to her, now that in afterlife she is a mixture of both Horus and Anubis. The inner sanctorum pillars soften suddenly as the face of Hathor the Goddess of post mortem fertility appears almost in each of the columns. But further inside in the last walls of the temple we finally see her, no longer as the ruler but in her true elements, a little girl caressing a cow, just like our own Shakuntala in the groves of the ashrama of Kanvamuni.


Luxor and more than that, Karnak which we would visit later has many of her faces erased and vandalized, her cartouches over written on, her obelisks felled off their bases. Despite her prowess, Hatchepsut was the woman everywhere and anywhere in the world whose achievements men cannot tolerate. When you cannot put her down, you physically attack her to obliterate her, dismember her and of course vandalize her, metaphorically rape and murder.


With such thoughts I followed the group into the bus, thoroughly scalded in the sun to check into Steinberg Hotel, perhaps the poshest in the country. Vijay Mallya was loitering around in the lobby but I was too tired to take the trouble of clicking him. The lunch was a lavish spread, the best that I have ever had in a five-star hotel and totally heat singed, we crashed into our beds for a deep afternoon siesta.

Before we had come into the hotel, we stopped by the Colossis of Memnon, two very badly damaged statues standing in the middle of nowhere, and now engulfed by the growing city. It is said that these were put up by Amenhotep III of the 18th century and at sunrise and sunset, the statues would wail, lamenting the loss of Egyptian soldiers in the Trojan war. Clearly the Greeks were on the negative lists of the ancient Egyptians.


Before we had come into the hotel, we stopped by the Colossi of Memnon, two very badly damaged statues standing in the middle of nowhere, and now engulfed by the growing city. It is said that these were put up by Amenhotep III of the 18th century and at sunrise and sunset, the statues would wail, lamenting the loss of Egyptian soldiers in the Trojan war. Clearly the Greeks were on the negative lists of the ancient Egyptians.


19th March 2018, Evening


The Dance and Dinner


The travel company, Byond Travel had asked us to pack a party dress for a gala night of dance and dinner on the trip. We had among our many sets of clothes a special dress packed for the evening. Ashray and Hassan and the ten of us set sail aboard a felucca once again belonging to a Nubian man with his adolescent helper on the Nile to reach a resort designed like a desert camp on a small island. The wind was not enough for the sails to open and bloat so a motor boat tugged our felucca. The sailors sang for us and Ashray played some Hindi film music on his mobile. He had saved some booze from the evening before and now with some country made crude glasses washed in the river water, we mixed our drinks. Ice was carried in a plastic bag. The Uzo was too sharp for us even with tonic water but the vodka and orange juice and the breezers and the wine were simply Heavenly as we watched the Nile turn into a darker blue with the setting sun turning from a bright crimson into a deep maroon with orange borders. The islands of marshes were now dark and we could spot a light glimmer here and there.


Though getting in and out of feluccas challenged our various levels of physical fitness and with the help of sometimes the Nubian boatsmen and sometimes with Ashray and Hassan we somehow managed. But once afloat the sail was just wonderful.

The desert camp laid out for us the dips of Babaganoush, Muhammara and Tahini and various other yogurt-based dips with fresh sticks of cucumber, tomatoes and olives. There were aerated drinks on the house and ofcourse some soup. With these came the dancers of the deserts, uncannily similar to our very own desert dancers both in movement and rhythms and in costumes. The desert, perhaps produces its own music, it has its intrinsic beats otherwise how can the desert people be so similar to one another in their music?


The dancers pulled us up to dance with them and we enjoyed shaking our legs. The belly dancer was amazing and this was the first time I saw a belly dance so close in range. She moved a lot of her body through almost imperceptible movements. The kathak dance teacher among us bowled the professional dancers of the troupe with her steps.


Then there was the dervish dance where the dancers spin so fast that their skirts gather momentum of their own and spin like tops above their heads.


The food was completely Nubian and tasted rather Bengali except that there was no spice seasoning. The sweets were of course the star of the layout and now we returned in the bus, feluccas don’t sail at night.


20th March 2018, Morning


Karnak Temple


Karnak is perhaps the world’s largest temple complex built over a period of at least 2000 years and with an area of over 2 square kilometres. In many ways it is a twin of the Luxor temple, being also devoted to Amun Ra and hectically expanded by the two most famous temple builders of Egypt, namely Hatchepsut and Ramses II. There is a “ram’s avenue” lined on either side with sphinxes with Ram’s head, signifying the God, Amun. This is the path that leads to the huge gateway, or pylong built by Ramses II who sits on either side of the entrance in the form of gigantic statues. There are lines of dead Pharaohs who stand with tiny statues of Nefriti with them. This is also the place where Akhanaten appears, perhaps for the first time in any enshrinement.


During the New Kingdom, after Tuthmose IV there emerges a man or a woman or a third gender in Egypt who called himself (for the lack of specific information on gender) Akhanaten. He claimed to be blessed by Aten, or the sun disc. He propounded monotheism in Egypt and closed down all the temples which did not worship Aten. Every God was given an affix of Aten like Ptah was called as Ptahaten, Ra was called as Rahten and so on. The Karnak temple was a temple of priests instead of it being a temple of Kings and here, Akhanetan must have showered his blessings in order to create his own cult. The Queen Nefriti took over after Akhanetan’s death, a mysterious death actually to come to think of it; murder cannot be ruled out entirely. Nefriti raised Tutankhamen, who was initially called as Tutanaten but after Akhanaten, Nefriti changed over once more to the cult of the Amun and rechristened Tutanaten as Tutankhamen. Nefriti was either the step mother or grandmother of the boy king who came to the throne at the age of 8 and died young at the age of 14. But she loved her step son or grandson and the intense agony she suffered at his death can be felt as she places a lock of her hair into his coffin for his life beyond death. She straddles him with gold, so much gold that the boy is easily the richest to be ever born on this earth. She stands in her Pharaohdom at the foot of mummified kings, an honour that so eluded Hatchepsut now easily gets bestowed upon her.


There is an alley of dead kings, perhaps in a manner to seek legitimacy by invoking the dead kings, a crucial practice in ancient Egypt where a living king would necessarily have to take the mantle from his ancestors.


It is quite evident that it was Akhanaten who perhaps first created a religion with a single God and a mass following without the intervention of the priests or the temple or even rituals. He must have been the world’s first Prophet but with Akhanetan, much like the Aswan Dam, Egypt must have got a jolt with its Gods and Goddesses erased out suddenly. Nefriti, very cleverly restores Egypt to the world of Amun and Mut. Karnak celebrates the trinity, Amun, Mut and their son Khonsu who during the month of the flooding of the Nile. They go out like Jagannath, Subhadra and Balaram with gaiety and fanfare to Luxor temple through the avenue of the rams to be rejuvenated and be born again in the typical style of Nabakalebar of Jagannath.


Interestingly only papyrus, the symbol of southern Egypt seems to dominate Karnak and not the tying together of the Lotus, the symbol of North with the papyrus as we see in Luxor. There are stone sculptures of piles of papyrus collected in a courtyard which would probably have been placed atop pillars. The scale of Karnak towers over that of Luxor, pillars so high, ceilings so high, carvings at such height, the obelisks so tall are sense defying. The practice of working with such huge proportions was the top down practice in which rocks would be cut roughly and sand filled into these. Then the artists would start carving from the top and descend below by increasingly moving away the sand. The obelisk, once again was set up by Hatchepsut. Karnak also has a lake, interesting because it is the only temple with a dedicated pond attached to it.

This was more or less the end of our trip. We returned to the bus and landed as usual at a flea market. The sun was too hot for many of us to bear and some of us sat at a Mac Donald’s before heading towards an Indian restaurant for lunch, our only Indian meal on the trip. How strange, we did not seem to have missed India at all!!














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Sridevi dies

Sridevi died on the 24th of February 2018 at the age of 54. At the time of death she was preparing, and rather was on the path to a great second innings of her life. She had made a comeback into cinema with a film called English Vinglish and acted in a revenge drama called Mom. Her daughters were growing up and she took an active interest in their careers and her daughter Jahnvi is all set with her first film on the verge of release. Sri, as she was known to her fans and colleagues was having a wonderful time of her life. She was also looking very svelte with her slim demeanour, almost getting close to the body of a young woman. And then she died, in her bathroom, at first thought to be a heart attack and later diagnosed as a death by accidental drowning. The incident took place in a hotel room in Dubai, a city she was visiting on the occasion of a marriage in the family. Deaths such as this means police investigations which were duly conducted with routine post mortem. As the television channels were reporting these events to the tearful fans of Sridevi one English Channel reported a strange thing, and which was that contrary to the initial idea that Sridevi fell ill immediately after she came back from the wedding party, it seems that the wedding happened two days prior to her death which was the 21st and she remained back in Dubai while her husband and her daughter returned to Mumbai. It was said that on the 23rd, her husband attended a function in Uttar Pradesh and returned to Dubai on the day of her death, in fact barely fifteen minutes prior to her death. The return was unplanned as he just popped out from nowhere to give a surprise to his wife, the wife being already scheduled to return on the morning of the 25th or the very next day after the day she died. Such strange turn of events gave rise to suspicions and rumour mills worked overtime to construe that indeed the beauty had been done in by the beast of her husband.


Speculations around her murder went to such heights that media rooms became parallel forensic laboratories of journalists sinking into employ bathtubs to say how she could have possibly drowned. To most Indians the bathtub is a strange contraption and though many moons ago the film Padosan was alert enough to bring the contrivance into familiarity of a modernizing India by placing Saira Banu into a bathtub, in which she sang while she bathed, the media beams were the first time ever that the Indians of the present generation saw a bathtub!! This immediately caught the eyeballs and a story got its prime visuals and the murder mystery nicely gelled around it. We may refer to Deleuze when he says that the cinema becomes the cinema by placing objects into their world and the bathtub, in this case became that central object around which the drama was created. The speculations around her death was a way to make sense of rather unexplained events namely the circumstances leading to her death.


R G Collingwood says in his treatise on art written in 1932 that a work of art becomes art due to its incompleteness because art does not become so until and unless it is viewed by an audience. A drama in dress rehearsal, a painting in wraps and an unreleased film are not works of art for though they are complete in themselves as they have not been viewed by their audiences. The audience responds to works of art at various levels of depths, though first they would respond to the medium and then gradually travel into the idealism of the art. The final meaning of a work of art is the meaning which the audiences award to it through their interpretation. This is why, film stars, embodying the very medium of the cinema into them must be subject to such interpretations. Rumor mongering is a way of “completing” the star image. Sridevi could not have been “consumed” as it is without the audience having its interpretation added on to her.


We need to know everything about stars in a way we do not need about the others. Soldiers may die in Kargil, terrorists may kill in Basra, and people may starve in Mali how do we care? For these are stories in themselves and do not require our viewing in order for them to become stories. Cinema does and so do other forms of spectatorship which includes the television. This is why the shrill voices of the anchors try to tease our senses, leading to the phenomenon of the Sansani. Sridevi died mysteriously because neither the cause of death nor the events leading to those conditions were revealed. While the media has been accused of sensationalizing her death into a possible murder, it is true that the actor’s death leaves many questions unanswered and the family by not calling a press conference to provide the details has not helped satiate curiosity.

Deleuze says that the most defining and unique feature of the cinema is movement and stars who embody cinema are also movement images as well. Things happening to them are visible and expressed through their bodily movements. This is why we must know how exactly the details of the movements; woman fell into the bathtub, if she was going out in fifteen minutes then why was the bathtub full? What was the state of the body when she drowned? Was the bathroom door locked or open? If it was open why so? Was she clothed or undressed when she was found? If the heart stopped after she drowned and not drowned because her heart stopped which is why we have accidental drowning then how did the drowning happen? If she had fainted and fallen into the bathtub then why did she faint? If it was plain fainting then why did she not regain consciousness as soon as the head hit water? A cardiac arrest by which the heart stops suddenly would still be credible but that was ruled out by the Dubai forensic. So it was all going fine for television to raise doubts over the naturalness of the death and many sharp observers among celebrities like Taslima Nasreen and Saroj Khan and even the veteran Wahida Rahman found reasons to sharply question Sridevi’s death as was claimed due to natural causes. The channels got some doctors on board and even the medics had no clue of how one could possibly drown in a bathtub though such deaths are not that uncommon in conditions of utter inebriation, which was not the case with her because it was minutes before she decided to postpone her bath and instead accompany her husband for dinner and went in to quickly wash up means that notwithstanding the fact that she was a teetotaller she was at least at that time not drunk. TRPs shot up and then came the abyss.


The abyss came in the form of journalists going overboard and actually pronouncing the judgment that Sridevi was murdered suggesting that the husband did her in, otherwise how do the truly unusual sequence of events of her staying back with her sister and yet living in a hotel room and suddenly the husband arriving on the scene to rather shock than surprise her and rushes her for dinner so much that she decides to postpone her bathing routine and instead moves in for a mere touch up which explains why the door was not locked and yet fills the bathtub in to the brim knowing that she will not bathe and in no time falls deep into the water. The doubts were legitimate but the presentation crass. Even before the matter had been properly reprinted there was a jump to conclusion with a great deal of finality. The doubt was not a problem, the haste with which the doubt was concluded into a belief was the tackiness of the whole episode. However, the excitement of a possible murder as long as Sridevi’s body did not fly back sustained, but once it did and the family was cleared by the police and the possibility of murder foreclosed the media lost the match and the ranks within television began to dissipate. There appeared a divide between the Hindi channels and the English ones with the latter distancing itself from the former, the Hindi channels which asserted the murder as a gospel truth now being proved so wrong emerged as the losers. Some English channels even apologized for the excess committed by their class alter egos, namely the Hindi ones.


The twist to the story as above comes with Hindi journalist Bhupinder Chaubey who said that behind this boorish behaviour of his ilk lay the financial model of the television channel owners who, in pursuit of ever higher profits, compromised on the wages of journalists. Every channel is guilty of mass layoffs and pushing wages down to entry levels. The fear of being laid off if one does not bring TRPs and the disincentive of never getting a pay raise makes journalists crouch right back into standards those are only entry level. The doubts over the death was not crass but the unsophistication of the mind that cannot hold a doubt and rushes into a conclusion was revealed to be poorly developed. The problem of the media is that its profit models are non-conducive to the proper development of the intellect and hence intellect is compromised by losing all its fine edge of pursuing deeper into thoughts. The line that divides the mediocre and the excellent is in the power of adherence, the latter can hold on to things longer through rumination, reflection and reason. The mediocre is abrupt, hasty and impatient but this is not to say that their doubts were unreasonable.


Soon voices were raised within the broadcast media and the social media of how badly Sridevi is treated in her death. These voices objected to doubts raised over the death and hence whatever rationality the mediocres had shown were now thrashed out of the arena. With a part of the English language media apologizing,the category of people who found nothing unusual in the death and wholly in sympathy with the husband crooned on the crassness of the media, flew to the social media and normalized the situation by literally condoning off the voices of doubt and in effect, pushed Sridevi under wraps. The doubters became the losing mediocre and those who did not doubt were the upper classes. Lower classes are imitative of the upper classes and soon the population who were in doubt graduated to the sanitized zone of being beyond doubt. That was the end of Sridevi. Stars end when they become complete, when fans no longer continue to interpret them and this is what the moralists have done by shouting down the numerous fans who refused to take in the circumstances of the star’s death on face value. The moralists waged a class war against the doubting brains not realizing that doubt is brainy though hasty conclusion is stupid. It is because of the haste that the doubters stand to lose their way.


But why were the moralists so eager to let the doubts be? Why did the moralism become a sign of a social upper class? The most apparent reason could be that the moralists spoke in the same voice as Sridevi’s family and friends and by echoing the sentiments of the establishment they adhere to the same status as them. So from being a fan they quickly jump into being the inner circle. And as the inner circle always does they take her away behind the walls of visibility that separates the star from her fans forever. Strange that the family does not seem to be puzzled as well.


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Politics of Padmavati

Watched the film Padmavat. Spectacular, disquieting and disturbing. Spectacular because of the visuals but disquieting and disturbing because of the history. Historians want to take the history bit out of it and the Karni Sena wants to stop the history from coming to light ever. I think that unknowing to themselves both have exactly the same concern and which is that now that India is a nation why rake up the memory of the ferocious and treacherous Muslim conquerors on the Indian soil? Upinder Singh has recently published a book called Violence in Ancient India which has details of political assassinations and punishments in a period we loosely call as the Hindu period but such acts are confined to the royalty only. Memories of conquerors looting the homes, abducting and raping women of ordinary householders are affixed specifically to the Muslims and not to invaders in general. Popular memory recalls that the purdah and the palanquin came throughout northern India in order to protect women from the rapacious gaze of the Turki soldier on the streets. Written history may not have this on record but oral memory does and standing squarely between a multicultural, plural and secular India and a communally divided society is this memory of the Muslim. Hence historians wish to obliterate Alauddin’s ransack and the Karni Sena that of Padmini’s Jauhar, two sides of the same coin of the Muslim conquest of Hindu India. India cannot accommodate the two communities given the history of their coming together, one the rapist and the other the victim of that rape. This will be like asking the offender and the victim to marry. How is that? This is why if India is to be a nation then such memories must be reworked and histories distorted. Historians and the Karni Sena are both performing the same task of revision.

But who really made an epic out of stories surrounding Rani Padmini and her Jauhar? Who used the story to create a sharp contrast between the cultured Hindu and the barbarian Muslim? It was none other than a Muslim poet, Malik Mohammad Jaisi. A century later, miles away in yet another corner of undivided India, in a Muslim kingdom of Chittagong hills, an imprisoned Muslim poet Syed Alaol rewrote Jaisi’s Padmavat as Padmavati in Bengali. One wonders why Muslim story tellers would be so keen to show Muslim conquerors in such uncouth veneer. In fact the folk stories around Padmini in Rajasthan portray the battle between Alauddin and Rana Rattan or Bhimsingh as a Khilji versus Rajput conflict but Jaisi goes out all the way to sharply communalize the story; it is Sultan for him and not Alauddin and thus stereotyping all Muslim rulers as nauseating barbarians. To my mind, the real history should lie in the writing of the folklore as an epic by Muslim poets like Jaisi and Alaol. What were they doing when they were lionizing Hindu ideals and lambasting the Muslim treachery?

Actually, Jaisi and Alaol were fighting what the historian Barani who lived, observed and reported during the 13th century that the Hindus were aristocratic but of mild and meek nature. Jaisi’s description of Rana Ratan in love with the idea of Padmavati, a woman who he merely heard of but whose imagination of her made him into an ascetic and undertake a journey with thousand yogis to Sinhala, is a man who has the power of enormous self-abnegation and self-sacrifice. This he contrasts with the crassness of the Sultan, who much like Rana Ratan becomes infatuated with Padmini by only hearing about her. But he shows crudity, aggression, greed and violence and eventually destroys the queen and her kingdom. Jaisi argues against Barani and other court historians of the Sultanate that neither was the Hindu indifferent towards his religion nor was he ever weak and the mighty Rajputs with their enormous armies had to be the validation of the Hindu prowess. Padmavati, therefore becomes a poem in which the grandeur of the Hindus are described and set off against the crudity of the Muslims.

Barani could not say much against the incumbents of the Sultanate because he was employed as a court scribe of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq and he ended up praising Muhammad bin Tughlaq, a man though eloquent was a ruthless pervert. But he dropped rather sharp hints against these jihadi rulers, who plundered in the name of a Holy War in his treatise on the ideals of polity. Here Barani invokes ideals which are totally in contrary to the rules followed in the Sultanate. In his “own work”, namely the Fatwah-i-Jahandari, or the rules of everyday living he invokes the idea not only of a polity based on the Hindu ideals of duty, loyalty and commitment and obligation but imagines the Hegelian Super Individual, namely the ruler of the land to be a personified epitome of such values. Hence in Rana Ratan in Padmavat, Jaisi searches for the Purushottam. It will be only another forty years when Tulsidas would compose his Ramcharitmanas to freeze the idea of the Purushottam in Ram.

School texts and other commonsense construction of history tells us that at the time of the invasion of the various parties in the Sultanate, there was no idea of India. Hence in the oral version of the tale around Padmini, the fight is between the house of Mewar and the Khiljees but Jaisi and after him Alaol both insist in a Hindu versus Muslim battle. At one level both are much more aware of the use of Islamic jihad behind the intent of the Sultanate than the anonymous folklore composers but at another level, these poets namely Jaisi and Alaol along the the 11th century Arab Godman, Satya Pir and the 9th century Sankarachary were all in the game together of presenting Hinduism as a dharma that unified a territory with a definitive boundary, namely the geography of India. Padmavat, the epic poem must be placed in this context.

Jaisi has two motives for the composition of his epic poem; one is to contrast the Muslim marauder with the civilized Hindus so as to establish a much more refined version of Islam which did not ride on the swish of the swords and the other is to imagine a purushottam, or the Hegelian Spirit, a Napoleon, or a Caesar who could unite together the highly fragmented polity of Jaisi’s times. Rana Rattan was that Purushottam in a sharp contrast to Alauddin, a man who wants to overrun the whole of India. Both are contrasted with each other not so much by way of direct confrontation but by their kinds of infatuation with the same woman, Padmini. In Jaisi’s poetry both men are enchanted with Padmini without ever having seen her. Ratan becomes an ascetic and leaves his home with a thousand yogis and set off to Sinhala to express his love for the daughter of Gandharvasena, the king of Sinhala. Ratan camps for days and months outside Gandharvasena’s fort and when at last he climbs over the high walls into the premises, Ratan is arrested and sentenced to be burnt at stake. Padmini rescues him, marries him and sails away to Rajasthan as his bride. Soon enough Alauddin fascinated by Padmini just by hearing of her camps outside the impregnable walls of Chittor, finds his way inside the fort and begins a cycle of events in which Padmini burns herself in the jauhar fire. Ratan becomes an ascetic or the yogii in his love for Padmini while Alauddin becomes the ultimate consumerist, or the bhogi. Ratan offers to burn himself, Alauddin creates condition for Padmini to be burnt alive. Ratan’s companions are weaponless yogis, Alauddin’s men are armed to the teeth. Bhanshali’s film has done justice to this spirit.

Rana Ratan and Padmini are lovers while the first wife stands out like a sore thumb between them and Alauddin and his eunuch general, Malik Kafur are lovers and Alauddin’s wedded wife is a less wanted surplus. Alauddin is a narcissist for he lives in a room full of mirrors; it is irony that he is made to look at Padmini through a series of angularly arranged mirrors. Ratan was about to be burnt alive by Padmini’s father, Padmini fulfills her love by setting herself on fire. Bhanshali has changed the introduction quite a bit so that Ratan is never seen outside the fort of Gandharvasena. But the rest are pretty similar. Alauddin and Ratan are shown in juxtaposed shots as each enters his palace, or get dressed up to meet each other over dinner and each frame that shows them parallel or together the contrast between them is heightened. Alauddin has no ideals, Ratan is idealist; Alauddin is treacherous, Ratan is loyal. Alauddin often loses self-control, Ratan is restrained, Alauddin brooks no opposition while Ratan accommodates everything. But brave they both are. Alauddin’s bravado consists in attacking the other, Ratan’s bravery lies in absorbing the attacks. The strength of the Muslim says Jaisi lies in plunder, the strength of the Hindu is in his or her capability of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.

Ratan could have killed Alauddin many times over but each time he would let go of the Sultan for ideals and values came in between. Alauddin cared nothing for values and hence he could kill rather easily by treachery. Bhanshali does nothing to sugarcoat the bitter pill that Alauddin Khiljee and his portrayal inheres the spirit of Jaisi very closely by making his film into an encounter between the Hindu ideals and the Muslim conquerors lack of it. The oral sources however recognize the wars as a battle among the Rajputs and the Khiljees or a matter of ethnicity as in the Turashkas plunder of the Hindus and not necessarily as a communal warfare.

Despite his deep admiration for the Hindus, Jaisi does not ignore the smallness of the Hindu mind because kings could not unite against the invaders and the perverseness of Brahmins exemplified by the betrayal by Raghav Chetan, a court poet in Jaisi but a royal priest in Bhashali’s fim. Jaisi seems to be saying and Bhanshali has correctly picked up the details that the Hindus had no idea of what was striking them.

The reasons for Jaisi and before him Ziauddin Barani, Sultans like Firoz Shah Tughlaq and emperors like Akbar lauded the Hindu ideals was because of the utter unsophistication of people like Alauddin Khiljee or pervertly cruel Muhammad bin Tughlaq. It is never a good ideal for secularism to support fundamentalism in any religion and Islam deserves no reservation to be spared of that either. If we uphold the Sati as a Hindu ideal then where do we place Raja Rammohan Roy or Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar? If we imagine Alauddin as a nice person how do we ever understand the contribution of the great Mughals? or of Jaisi, or of Alaol or of those medieval Islamic scholars and scribe for whose efforts India is multicultural? I think that it is important for every nationalist Indian and secular liberal persons to separate the grain from the chaff.

Eventually, Hindus caught on Jaisi’s idea rather well and there came the Sikhs and the Marathas. The Sikhs imitated the Pathans in their attire and especially the plaits and braids for men and much of their dance moves of swinging on one leg and slapping the thigh are integral parts of the bhangra. The Marathas adopted much of those behavior which were the most hated about the Muslim conquerors namely cruelty, treachery, disloyalty and betrayals and above all, hate. No wonder then the Maratha’s desire for Hindudom lies at the root of the present day Hindutva, a very Islamized Hinduism. Javed Akhtar warns the Hindutvawadis never to become like the Muslims just as Jaisi or Alaol or secretly Barani did the same too. For only they know the barbarity that Muslims are capable of in the name of religion just as we the Hindus know the extent of crudity that Hindu fundamentalism is capable of. To deny fundamentalist possibilities of any religion is secularism’s shame, not its function.

Bhanshali’s film has changed the storyline of Jaisi here and there perhaps to simplify stuff for the film screen but he has put in some Shakespearan nuances in his otherwise operatic magnum opus. Padmini goes all the way into Delhi, albeit unknown to Alauddin to rescue Rana Ratan. As long as he was a captive of Alauddin, Rana held on to his character but as soon as he walked free back into his fort with the crowds rising in ovation to his queen, Padmini, he suddenly appeared to be a crushed man, his masculinity deeply afflicted by his queen’s bravado. It is from the moment of his rescue that he actually loses it all and seems to surrender to both Alauddin and his Fate. This is a slight distortion of Jaisi’s tale, where Alauddin has not been able to kill Ratan and instead Deepaval stabs the Rajput king at the back just as the Sultan’s men stab Ratan from behind, but well, the king is dead and Alauddin is ransacking Chittor. Alauddin runs into the fort, imagining to finally get to see the queen but finds her nowhere among the thousands who now march towards the raging fire in the giant pit. He has no idea of what the jauhar is but finally pieces it all by drawing inferences from the lighted embers thrown at him and the huge conflagration which he sees and the march of women towards it. He then crashes, almost cries at stop and seems to say look I didn’t think that the game would go this bad. It is said that Alauddin corrected himself quite a bit in the later part of his rule and Khusrau, his court poet assigns this to the scolding he got from Nizamuddin, the saint of Delhi. But Bhashali suggests that it was the slap he got from Padmini when she walked into fire must have stunned him into civilization.

I am not in favour of a modernity which places a hierarchy on values, claiming the modern values to be morally higher than the medieval ones Jauhar is not Sati; it is the Samurai sense of honour, committed by women of the warrior clans, actual instances being only one here and another there. Sati, on the other hand was forced upon ordinary householders, their numbers could stretch to thousands in the 18th and early 19th century Bengal. Jauhar is not for the ordinary nor for the everyday; it is part of war, a martyrdom in which by an inward collapse you leave the enemy with nothing to fight for. This is what Padmini did; when encountered with a man who had no values or morals, she undid herself and thereby divesting him of his reason for warfare. There are many similar tales as this among the Buddhists as well.

I have no idea why some people in India are trying to appease our Muslim citizens by denying the tyranny of the Sultanate. I am sure that the practitioners of Sati does us the Hindus no service. By erasing the truth of the horrors of the Muslim conquest, we are insulting our Jaisis and Javed Akhtars of their right to critique their religion and reform it to suit a plural world of secular modernity.



















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Meghnad Bodh Kabya by Michael Madhusudan Dutta

On the 17th of December 2017, Nandan Dasgupta captivated the Ohetuk Adda with his presentation of Michael Madhusudan Dutta’s epic poem Meghnadbodh Kabya. While presenting the finer aspects of the work, Nandan wove together Madhusudan Dutta’s biography to show that the life and times of the poet had influenced both his personality as well as his poetry. Often known to have brought Western influences into Bengali poetry the presenter alerted us to the vast reading of the poet of Hindu mythologies as well as his thorough reading Greek and Roman myths. He brings together the Sanskrit metaphors of Kalidas, the grandiose of Milton, the resonance of Chaucer as well as the lyrical romanticism of Yeats. No wonder then Michael Madhusudan Dutta has been Bengal’s greatest poet before the age of Tagore.

Meghnadbodh Kabya is a retelling of the Ramayana where the anti hero Ravana has been glorified. Many episodes in the poem which are the poet’s creation now stand as being integral part of the Epic. For instance, the assassination of Meghnad by the conspiracy of his own uncle, Vibhishana while the former was sitting alone and unarmed in his Yagna room has become a permanent feature of the Ramayana. Despite Meghnad being the hero, he gets killed and exits the poem in the 6th canto and for the rest three it is Ravana who gets the centre stage. The work is mainly about Ravana.

The tone of the poem is not righteous, it is fatalistic. This brings Madhusudan Dutta so close to Homer.The abduction and the war happened because of Fate unforeseen and uncontrolled by human agency. The Gods play their part in the story as they take sides of their favourites and they bring in further doom into the events. There are interesting interventions of Madan like Hypnos in Homer’s epic, the Illiad. And much like Homer Meghnadbodh Kabya despite is valiant effort and heroic characters remains a tragedy, something that Michael Madhusudan introduced into Bengali literature perhaps for the first time ever.

It is not only the epic form of the Greeks that Michael introduced into his poetry but he introduced the blank verse, the sonnet, the use of flash backs and dream sequences and of course the tragedy and foreboding.

Madhusudan Dutta’s own life has been tragic despite him being a larger than life character. Known for his profligacy, he swung between luxury and penury for most of the times to die a lonely and a desolate man. He converted to Christianity perhaps to access the high European culture associated with Christianity. His family and especially his ever supportive father, Rajnarayan Dutta severed ties with him and the conversion cost him his seat in the Hindu College. He was a polyphon and a polymath for he studied Latin, Greek and Persian and he read classics across cultures.

For all his newness, Michael had a predecessor in Henry Vivian Derozio, a poet and a leader who died young. His Young Bengal movement which was a spearhead movement for social reform towards building a more rational society influenced Michael into the world of powerful individual personalities. But perhaps the despondency of his life, having never really been able to balance his creativity with his work for a living made him see in individualism shades of tragic heroism. And that was the flavour of many of his works, among which Meghnadbodh Kabya is the brightest Jewel.

The popularity of Michael Madhusudan Dutta can be gauged from the regularity with which his plays were performed on stage and he also wrote on commission from producers of plays both on stage as well as in private theatres of the zamindars. Many of the dialogues especially from Meghnadbodh Kabya have found their place in Bengali idioms.
















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Finally I read through Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s epic work, Padmavati. Written in 1540′ Padmavati predates Tulsidas’s Ramayana by about 40 years. Both are experiments in Awadhi poetry and represents milestones in writing in the vernacular. Like Tulsidas   decades after him, Jaisi too trained in Sanskrit, studying the language from the best of Pandits in Benaras. The purpose behind studying Sanskrit was to get the rhythm and the tone of the language so that the poetry written in Awadhi could have similar grandeur of the metaphor. But there was yet another similarity behind both the poet’s purpose and that was to imagine a Purushottam. For Tulsi it was Rama but for Jaisi it was Rana Rattan, the man who was infatuated by and eventually took Padmini as his second wife, he being already married to one Nagmati. Padmini was exquisitely beautiful, Padmini being a generic name for a particular kind of woman. The other types are heerni, Hastini, hansini, mrinalini and so on. Padmini is supposed to be the most beautiful form of women. Most probably, Padmavati was the name of this Padmini’s name. Her father was a ruler in Sinhala by the name of Gandharvasena, one who would invoke the jealousy of the mighty Ravana. By the time Gandharvasena ruled Ravana was dead but Vibhishana was alive and the Rakshasas seemed to be rather envious of him. In fact when Ratansena was carrying Padmini across the seas, Lakshmi, the Goddess instate of Lanka conjured up a vile storm that nearly fatally rocked their boat.

Padmavati’s beauty in a large measure drew from the beauty and the bounty of the land she was born into, namely Sinhala. Sinhala was not only high economy but it was high culture as well. Sinhala therefore constituted perhaps the dreams of the Rajasthani, a dream which they partially fulfilled by providing generous employment to the cultured Bengalis. Bengalis were employed in the royal courts as purohits, Pandits, generals, accountants and ministers. Indeed, Swami Vivekananda too was sponsored by the royal family of Kota, his costume too being designed in Rajasthan! The search for wealth and opportunities brought the Marwaris into Bengal as early as the 16th century. So, for the Rajasthanis it seems that Sinhala was their El Dorado.

Rana Ratan, or Ratansena gets to know of Padmavati through Hiraman. Hiraman is Padmavati’s parrot who escapes her custody and falls into a series of misadventures but eventually finds a place in the royal palace of Chittor, a colloquial name for Chitradurga, or the painted fort. Hiraman plays politics when he openly praises Padmavati to the queen, Nagmati. Nagmati in a fit of jealousy asks Ratansena to get rid of Hiraman but unfortunately he falls deeply in love with this magical woman who he can only dream of. Ratansena beset by his love for Padmavati renounces his kingdom and becomes a yogi. With an army of thousand yogis sets forth for Sinhala and on reaching Gandharvasena’s fort camps outside its walls for days. Padmavati hears of the infatuation and falls deeply in love with Ratansena. However, once Ratansena gets the impression that Padmavati may accept him as her lover, he with his yogi compatriots scale the walls of the fort and enters the campus. He is arrested and is about to be impaled. It is upon his gallows that Padmini sees Ratansena for the first time and she signs in the pardon for him. Gandharvasena is bound to release the yogi and give his daughter away to him as a bride. Padmavati comes away to Chittor with her large retenu of female companions and reunites with Hiraman. This is about two thirds the story.

In the palace Padmavati must encounter Nagmati through ugly scenes of quarrels and fights revealing her not a woman of grace but of one who is haughty and intolerant of incumbent queens. Smart people are often rude and hurtful, so was she. Ratansena was nonetheless clear that Nagmati would remain the principal queen while Padmavati remained his love. He would therefore spend nights with Nagmati. This did not faze Padmavati who seemed to be getting used to the ways of the palace. There are indications that Padmavati remained a virgin, the King being too enamoured to even attempt to touch her. The king’s infatuation is not lust but pure wonderment of beauty and a complete surrender to her, as if she were a Deity.

Only towards the end comes in the Sultan. Jaisi does not mention who that Sultan was except that he was a Muslim conqueror in India. Like Ratansena he too camped outside Chittor with the view of seeing Padmavati. But Ratansena went like a yogi, the Sultan came like a marauder. Ratan wanted to give up his life as a tribute to the lady, the Sultan came to pare down the fort and take her as a captor. Padmavati saw Ratan as he was about to be burnt at stake, but the fact that the Sultan caught a glimpse of her through the mirror was enough for Fate to condemn her to be burnt alive on the pyre. Ratan scaled the walls to surrender to Padmavati, the Sultan broke down the walls to subjugate her to him. Jaisi brings in the Sultanas a contrast to Ratansena, to reveal to us the low lines of lust and the nobility of love. Till such a point no one faults Jaisi with his bias against Muslims but when he starts describing the elaborate feast that Ratan makes for the Sultan and his cohorts which is a grand spread of meats of all kinds of animals who weep tears of blood and look stunned at the people who loved them and raised them and now want to kill them for flesh, the poet brings about non vegetarianism as cruelty against the world and raises it to the overall metaphor for killing, something that the Sultan has come to do. Lust for Padmavati is merely an extension of his lust for eating animal flesh. Jaisi contrasts the ethos of the Hindus against the ethos of the Muslims saying that the Muslim conquerors have torn asunder the dharma of the grand land of beauty and love only to replace it with greed and lust.

While Jaisi eagerly stereotypes the Muslim as an invader, unauthorized and illegitimate entrant into India, he refrains from ennobling all Hindus. The two characters namely Raghav Chetan, the court poet and Depaval the ruler of a neighbouring constituency are the ones who create trouble for Chittor out of spite and of envy. Raghav Chetan has lusted for Padmini and as he is ousted from Ratan’s kingdom he promptly goes over to the Sultan and provokes him to Chittor. Depaval is jealous of Ratan for the great surrender for love that he is capable of and the great reward he has got from Padmavati because of such a surrender attacks Chittor mercilessly when Ratan’s soldiers are away fighting the Sultan. On Ratan’s death Padmini alights the fire.

Jaisi took the tale of Padmavati from a local Rajasthani folk lore. A poet Hem Kanta has written on Padmini as well where Padmini is very much a queen, almost ascending to the position of the chief queen. Prabhavati and not Nagmati is the incumbent queen and while they avoid each other, Padmini assumes the role of the chief queen. There is a problem of the stepson who might well be the guy to have incited Depaval against an errant father. Hem Kanta’s Padmini was born in Poogal in the kingdom of Bikaner. The Sultan now bears the persona of Alauddin Khiljee who attacks Chittor to snatch Padmini. Rattan and Padmini discuss Khiljee and are very careful to say that what he reveals are characteristics of a vicious marauder and neither of a King nor of a Muslim. Khiljee is no longer a Muslim stereotype, he is the stereotype of a ruler who follows no dharma.

Jaisi’s tale is tragic and fatalistic, Rattan is a tragic hero because he is beaten despite the nobility of his soul; he is a target of jealousy and envy. But he is also the Purushottam because infatuation for him is not lust, nor greed, nor the desire to possess but it invokes in him the supreme sacrifice of his life, death and martyrdom. Padmini reciprocates with her own death, death and death complete the circle of love. Nagmati, Depaval and Raghav Chetan stand out as surpluses, having no redemption for they have envied and thus literally have no liberation. Alauddin lives on as the grand reality principle of history, for there is no denial that the Khiljees did indeed rule in such a despicable way.

Jaisi’s poetry has all the structural properties of becoming universal and eternal. Padmavati and Ratansena complement each other, one offering to be impaled and the other immolating herself for him. Nagmati and Padmavati are opposed to each other and so are Rattan and Sultan. Hiraman the parrot which brings Padmini to Ratan by narrating tales of Padmini to the king and Raghav Chetan, the court poet who separates the lovers by exciting the Sultan with Padmini’s stories, constitute a pair. Depaval kills Ratansena and Nagmati wants to see Padmavati dead, are a pair. Hindus and Muslims are a pair, so are kings and yogis. The story thus acquires a symmetry and because of this symmetry the story can balance on its own, away from the politics of its times, away from the narrowness of its own events, into a realm of transcendence where we only remember the sublime beauty of Padmavati and the intense love of Ratansena for her. This is Jaisi’s story, much different from Hem Kanta’s tale of kings and queens, battles between the Rajputs and the Muslims and Padmini as a part of the politics of war and annexations.












































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Gayatri Mantra

My uncle has sent me a video in which an Indonesian singer tries to make a song out of the Gayatri Mantra. She sings perched upon a rock on the sea shore which gets constantly awashed by the waves lashing on it only to be smashed and rendered into a loose mass of foam. The sun is just about to rise amidst a network of cumulo cirrus clouds against a jade blue sky and the earth looks both beautiful and bountiful. This, is the premise of the Gayatri Mantra. The reciter is enchanted with the earth and she heaps upon it her lavish praise but conscious that the Sun, an even more powerful force might be envious of her compliments to the earth hastens to “also add” the Sun. Tat Savitu, she says, meaning, yes you too, dear Sun. On hindsight she recalls that the earth and the Sun are parts of a much larger cosmos and hence the cosmos must be appeased as the senior. So she adds, all the Deities of Bhrigu, meaning the astral Deities of the Zodiac who are supposed to create a field of force for the earth and the Sun to exist. Then she says that we must remember the entire system, the beautiful earth upon which we live, the Sun that has made that life possible and the zodiac that has made it possible for us to hold the Sun as well as the earth. The Gayatri thus expands the consciousness of the holistic constitutiveness of our lives, or of Life as a whole, pointing out to it being subject to a number of contingencies.

I was never much into the Gayatri Mantra as something that renders power to the chanter. I also had great difficulty in learning the mantra because it is not in Sanskrit but in a strange Vedic tongue and hence does not have the aesthetics of the Sanskrit metre. But looking at the video I suddenly was awakened to the level that the Vedic mind wished to reach, and which is to the final and the uttermost limits of the constitutiveness of human existence. I think that this separates the Indian thought from those of any other in the world. While the ancient literature has sought a valiant hero in Gilgamesh, who, though bound by promises to his people and by the idea of sin that lay in the unbridled exercise of passions and will, the Indian thought always seeks the outermost boundaries of human lives, which depend not so much on individual heroism but on the various factors of the physical world that renders heroic ventures possible. The Vedic people were not only modest but far more pragmatic so as not to imagine that everything that works in favour of humans are exclusively her own doing.


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Amitabh at 75 years

On his landmark birthday of three fourth way towards a century, Amitabh Bachchan retains the romance of the star he once rose to be some four decades ago. He is active in films, in the entertainment business, on social media, in public opinion and what is of greater significance, in gossips circulating around celebrities. It seems, as if that the writers are exhausted of ideas to write good scripts for him, but Amitabh’s image is still eager to grow and evolve into a finality that eludes our imagination. If we have the likes of Salim Javed once again in the present times, Amitabh can still rise into the iconic megastar all over again, crushing all the stars of our times. He has a strange presence; it is literally when he stands no one can be seen in his glare. In the early days of Amitabh’s stardom we used to discuss how politics of his time brought him in but our question today will be, if the age that held him has passed into history, what makes him still a star?

I “met” Amitabh forty years ago while watching Sholay after it already had run over two years. After that I quickly watched Amar Akbar Anthony. I watched Zanjeer and Deewar much later in reruns. But in my first encounter of him in Sholay, a film that cannot really be said to belong to Amitabh specifically, there was something about him for which I decided that in my life henceforth, I will be Amitabh Bachchan. I grew studious, dead serious, somewhat melancholic, but focused and decided to win at everything I do. I became a perfectionist, hardworking, confident, defiant and also arrogant. I used to imagine Amitabh Bachchan as bearing all of the above attributes and hence worked myself up to be all of these. Slowly, I discovered that the image of the star also was attached to his parents, dutiful towards his children and I too, taught myself to be mindful of my own parents. When I watched Deewar, I became intensely political; interestingly, I developed a socialist, egalitarian, anti-rich political affiliation with strong ideas about social justice. I trained myself to become fearless and soon had a hostile body language that helped me hold out against potential eve teasers.

Then came Amitabh’s first downfall as he, charged with graft, resigned from politics. I became aware of the sociology of public opinion and since I was about to write my MPhil examinations in JNU, I decided to work on the public condemnation of Amitabh Bachchan. My thesis was called the Social Construction of a Hero, The Images By Amitabh Bachchan. In the dissertation I discussed how the star image of Amitabh Bachchan made the public construct him as a man who could corrupt the politicians. I started working at the end of the career as an MPhil student and soon I used Amitabh’s formula of hitting back at critics with a slew of comeback films, renewed contacts with the media and creating noise around his own victimization as the apt formula which I could use against harassment at my workplace. I started feeling invincible in the sense that if I do not accept defeat, no one can rile me in. I learnt how to rise up against hostilities. My MPhil dissertation expanded into a PhD thesis in which I concentrated on how Amitabh Bachchan was a philosophy of overcoming of obstacles and of evolving into a higher level of achievements.

Slowly I grew older and more settled in my employment and made a name for myself in my career. I now own my own apartment and drive my own car; my days as a street fighter seems to be over. I also have now other people to admire, I no longer watch popular films, and I have expanded my readings far beyond political thoughts into reading more of history and anthropology. I no longer need to be Amitabh Bachchan and Amitabh, truly seems to have brought me as far as he could and now my journey with him seems to be over. When I look back on the star with distance and detachment and again ask myself the same question, what makes Amitabh into the star that he is, I think that I get two possible explanations.

One is undoubtedly his family background, not of political connections for these no longer work for him, but of education. The advantage of having a poet father and a mother who used to be college teacher before her marriage, the privilege of forever having poets and novelists as guests, the atmosphere of English classical literature, Shakespeare’s plays and the poetry of Yeats gives Amitabh a rare education, perhaps unparalleled by any among his peers. People often miss this very important asset of Amitabh Bachchan when they count his money and mark his wealth.

The other explanation is a sense of restrain. In the height of success or the depths of failure, from earning a crore per hour of work to being penniless with his home on mortgage, Amitabh seems to have neither been overboard with joy nor sink into a doomed despair. Money does not embolden him, penury does not unsettle him. When in bad times, he thinks of emerging out and when in good times, he dreams of further perfection. In his restrain lies both a sense of self command and self-awareness. I think that the above two explanations are somewhat related; only a very fine education can lead to a heightened awareness of the self, which is plainly what Amitabh Bachchan inheres; every other attribute of action and anger, of renewal and retribution, of victory and justice only build upon the strong edifice of self-awareness. If I am to become Amitabh again, I think that I need to raise my self-awareness and not my voice.

With his roles in the Last Lear and Kahaani, Amitabh is no more a stranger to Tagore and hence we can wish him through Tagore’s birthday song, He Nutan, Dekha Dao Baar Baar, Jonmero Prothomo Shubhakshan, or translated as Let me be renewed every moment with the renewal of that first auspicious moment of my birth, or O Divine, let me be born again and again, every moment being the auspicious moment of my birth.


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